Thurgood Marshall’s energetic activities as an attorney and judge helped shape the legal structure of modern American society leading, sometimes dragging, American jurisprudence to recognize the equality of black Americans. A peer of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he chose to work through the legal establishment to promote the cause of African Americans. Marshall made history as the first African American to be appointed as U.S. solicitor general, then as the first African American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Through rigorous constitutional interpretation, Marshall helped redefine educational opportunities for African Americans. He vigorously defended liberal causes affecting all races, including women’s rights to choice. He opposed the death penalty with equal fervor. During his long career, Marshall helped to define the extensions and limitations of constitutionality in modern United States.
The rights guaranteed in the original Constitution of the United States primarily benefited white male property owners, the only citizens entitled to vote in 1887 when the document was written. Women, the poor, and people of color including Marshall’s ancestors, black slaves, were allowed participation in the democratic process only gradually, as American society evolved and the Constitution was amended. During the 57 years between the time Marshall received his law degree in 1934 and his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1991, he managed to redefine interpretation of the Constitution through “informal amendments” defined by Supreme Court decisions, championing the rights of African Americans, women, and the poor.
In 1987, speaking as part of the bicentennial celebration of the framing of the Constitution, he repeated the concepts that guided him throughout his legal career. “I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever ‘fixed’ at the Philadelphia Convention,” he said. “Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights we hold as fundamental today.
“The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could not have envisioned these changes. They could not have imagined, nor would they have accepted, that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and the descendent of an African slave. ‘We the People’ no longer enslave, but the credit does not belong to the Framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘equality,’ and who strived to better them.”
The United States of the early 20th century into which Marshall was born, was a nation of established racism, so closely tied to the pre–Civil War era that the parents and grandparents of living African Americans were slaves or freedmen. Education and the armed services were segregated. Entrance to public buildings was determined by the color of one’s skin—white people were welcomed through the front doors; black folks had to go around back, if they were admitted at all.
The atmosphere of repression is best summarized in Marshall’s own words in an interview with Juan Williams and quoted in his biography of Marshall:
In the late ’30s. Well I was changing trains and I had about a two or three hour stopover and while I was waiting I got hungry and I saw a restaurant over there so I decided that if I got hungry enough I’d go over there and put my civil rights in my back pocket and go to the back door of the kitchen and see if I could buy a sandwich.
And while I was kibitzing myself to do that, this white man came up beside me in plain clothes, with a great big pistol in a case on his hip, and he said, Nigger boy, or something, what are you doing here? And I said well I’m waiting. And he said what did you say?
I said, sir, I’m waiting for the train to Louisiana. Shreveport.
And he said, well, there’s only one more train comes through here and that’s four o’clock and you’d better be on it because the sun is never going down on a live Nigger in this town.
And you know what? I wasn’t hungry anymore. I wasn’t thinking about eating because it dawned on me he could just blow my head off and he wouldn’t even have to go to court.
Marshall was well-educated, a practicing attorney, and physically imposing at 6 feet, 2 inches and well over 200 pounds. But without the authority of the law to support him, he was no match for the unbridled racism of the time.
Born Thoroughgood Marshall in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, Marshall was the great-grandson of a slave. He was named for his paternal grandfather, a freedman who chose his first name when he joined the Union Army. One of the many stories told by Marshall is that in the second grade, he got tired of spelling so much name and shortened it to Thurgood.
Marshall’s father, William Canfield Marshall, was first a railroad porter, then chief steward at the fashionable all-white Gibson Island Club. His mother, Norma Arica Marshall, taught in a segregated Baltimore elementary school. Together with his brother, Aubrey (who became a thoracic surgeon), Thurgood enjoyed a middle-class upbringing in a home that emphasized education and the discussion of ideas. Although a good student, he is said to have been outspoken and rambunctious, requiring disciplinary action. His punishment, which certainly served him well in later life, was to be sent to the school house basement with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and instructions to stay there until he had memorized sections. His mother wanted him to pursue a safe and lucrative career as a dentist, but he persisted in his desire to become a lawyer.
Marshall graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore and Lincoln University in Chester County Pennsylvania, the country’s oldest black university. He married his first wife, the former Vivien Burey, in 1929 when he was still in college. They were childless and she would die of cancer in February of 1955.
When he received his undergraduate degree in 1930, he aspired to attend law school at the University of Maryland School of Law, but was discouraged from even applying because of the school’s segregation policy. (Later he would bring suit against the school in Murray v. Pearson and bring an end to segregation there.) He attended Howard University School of Law and graduated first in his class in 1933. In 1936, he set up a private practice and began working with the NAACP.
Murray v. Pearson was his first major civil rights case. He argued on behalf of Donald Murray, a black Amherst College graduate with excellent credentials who was denied admission to the University of Maryland law school because of his race. Winning the case in the Maryland Court of Appeals thwarted Marshall’s intention to appeal to the federal courts, and while it was a moral victory, it had no authority outside of Maryland. It was, however, a stepping stone to one of his most notable successes arguing before the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
In 1940, at the age of 32, Marshall was appointed Chief Counsel for the NAACP. He and Charles Houston, who had served as Howard Law School’s vice dean, developed a long-range strategy to eliminate segregation in education. They concentrated on graduate and professional schools, believing that white judges would be most likely to be offended by segregation in that setting. They also hoped that the judges would sympathize with the promising and ambitious black college graduates who were the plaintiffs in the cases. As success followed success, they turned their attention to segregation in public high schools and elementary schools. “Under Marshall, the NAACP’s legal staff became the model for public interest law firms,” wrote Mark Tushnet, one of Marshall’s biographers who was also one of his law clerks. “Marshall was thus one of the first public interest lawyers. His commitment to racial justice led him and his staff to develop ways of thinking about constitutional litigation that have been enormously influential far beyond the areas of segregation and discrimination.”
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” did not apply to public education because it could never be truly equal, was the pinnacle of his achievements arguing before that body. In all, Marshall won all but three of the 32 cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Marshall to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His appointment was strongly opposed by a group of Southern Senators, but he served for several months under a “recess appointment” while the Senate was not in session, and the opposition was diffused before his confirmation.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to be the first African American U.S. solicitor general. Marshall hesitated, but Johnson won him over saying, “I want folks to walk down the hall at the Justice Department and look in the door and see a nigger sitting there.” Marshall accepted the position and won 14 of the 19 cases he argued for the government. One of his more notable victories was the case that led to the adoption of the Miranda rule requiring law enforcement officers to inform suspects of their rights.
On June 13, 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court saying this was “the right thing to do; the right time to do it; the right man; the right place.” Marshall was confirmed as an Associate Justice by a Senate vote of 69–11. By this time, Marshall had argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and won 29 of them. He was the 96th person to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court and the first African American.
Among the desegregation causes nearest to Marshall’s heart were education, employment, and jury selection. He was opposed to the death penalty in any form, seeing it as a punishment designed for poor minorities and the undereducated. “Government authorities will continue to execute people only over my unflagging objection, for capital punishment violates fundamental constitutional principles,” he said in an interview for Ebony magazine a year before he retired from the Supreme Court.
During the 24 years he served on the Supreme Court, Marshall compiled a liberal record showing strong support for constitutional protection of individual rights. His most frequent ally on the Court was Justice William Brennan, who joined him in support of abortion rights and opposition of the death penalty. Marshall fit in comfortably with the liberal-dominated court when he was appointed and cast only a few dissenting votes. By the time he announced his retirement on June 27, 1991, he had served longer than all but one of the sitting Justices—Byron R. White—and was more liberal than any of them. In his final term, he dissented in 25 of 112 cases.
Marshall said, “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband,” so when he announced his retirement, the country was surprised. He cited his health as the reason for his resignation. “I’m old. I’m getting old and coming apart.”
Thurgood Marshall died of heart failure at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on January 24, 1993, at the age of 84. He was survived by his second wife, Cecilia, whom he married in December 1955, and their two sons, Thurgood Jr. and John. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In his eulogy of Marshall, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist referred to the words inscribed above the front entrance to the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice for All.” Rehnquist stated, “Surely no one individual did more to make these words a reality than Thurgood Marshall.”
Frazer, Phillip. “Obituary: Thurgood Marshall.” The Independent, January 26, 1993. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-thurgood-marshall-1480856.html .
George, Christopher T. “Thurgood Marshall, As Rugged As His Monument.” n.d. Monumentally Speaking. http://www.baltimoremd.com/monuments/thurgood.html .
Greenhouse, Linda. “Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights Hero, Dies at 84.” New York Times, January 23, 1993. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0702.html .
Lazarus, Edward. Closed Chambers. New York: Random House, 1998.
Randolph, Laura B. “Interview with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.” Ebony magazine. November 1990. http://books.google.com/books?id=x8wDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA216&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Williams, Juan. Thurgood Marshall, American Revolutionary. New York: Crown, 1998. http://www.thurgoodmarshall.com .
Woodward, Bob and Scott Armstrong. The Brethren, Inside the Supreme Court. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.